It’s Easter Friday, today we remember a very radical person who refused to accept injustice in the world and paid for it with his life. 2000 years later, he still inspires people.
As the global health community will enjoy some well-deserved holidays with their loved ones in the coming days, either at home, on the shores of an idyllic island or on the slopes of the Alps, I thought for once I could dwell on a somewhat idiosyncratic topic: the fact that I have been radicalized over the past 5 years, at least when it comes to my views.
Why did this happen, as the saying goes “as you get older, you become more moderate and realist”? Most people adjust expectations over time, and accept ‘this is just the way it is’. No need to repeat here George Bernard Shaw’s or Winston Churchill’s famous quotes on the relation between communist/progressive views & age. What triggered me to go against the natural trend? At the age of 40, I’m better informed than ever before, I think, but my views are more extreme than 10, 15 years ago, even if I like to think I don’t have a George Bush-style Manichean mindset.
I think this soul searching exercise could be useful for many people (of my age) in this era, as I don’t think I’m an isolated case. This story of increasing radicalization at a (presumably) more mature age is becoming more and more common. See for example the polls in Germany which say that the age group which is most tempted to vote for a Eurosceptic party is between 40 and 49. That is an age bracket which tends to be better informed than most other age brackets.
Mine is not just a personal but also a Euro-centric view, of course. People elsewhere in the world will no doubt have their own stories and triggers of radicalization. Also, the issues that triggered my change are quite different from those of global health colleagues with plenty of field experience. I got involved in global health more or less by accident, in 2007. I’ve always had trouble accepting injustice – only psychopaths don’t – but somehow social injustice and inequities seem harder to accept now than before. Yes, I know what the doctors among you think now.
The strange thing is, at a personal level, by and large I’ve learnt to accept my own flaws and imperfections over the past 10-15 years. The opposite is true for the outside world though. Exposure to Buddhism & Indian philosophy (J. Krishnamurti for example), while traveling the world, didn’t work as an antidote for this increasing rage about the state of the world, maybe Western thinking is just too hardwired into my brain. I’ve always had a keen interest in the world, more or less since the age of 12, and studying political science was thus a natural choice. But back in the nineties I would have called myself ‘centre-left’, whereas now I find myself on the extreme left and so called ‘populist’ side of the political spectrum. Even if I don’t speak Italian (nor Greek), I sympathize with the desperate people who vote for Beppe Grillo or Syriza. As somebody said recently, many of these populists ask the right questions, even if they probably don’t also have the answers.
Two issues acted as “triggers” for my radicalization: climate change (as part of the larger sustainable development challenges in this century) and the current neoliberal austerity policies in the Eurozone which, at least in my eyes, are on their way to destroy the very idea of European solidarity, as well as everything that previous generations have built up after the second world war.
These are no ordinary times. The second issue is by no means new – just ask the people in Africa or Latin America about IMF & WB policies in the past. So I understand if people in the Global South feel some Schadenfreude now. The first issue is different though, and should turn everybody on this planet into a revolutionary, not just Europeans. Not necessarily in terms of behavior – we shouldn’t all become ecological warriors or terrorists. As most of the people of my age are aware, unlike the young generations, people with a family (like me) have to work within certain constraints and face certain trade-offs in their life. But at the level of analysis we shouldn’t refrain from taking up ‘extreme’ views, and at the very least also when we go to the ballot box.
So even if I feel many issues in this world are unfair, obviously including the huge health disparities, for some reason these 2 issues have provoked a ‘sense of urgency’ in me, the condition for most people to become more extreme in their views. Gone are the days that I voted for a politician who emphasized “the cake first has to become bigger before it can be divided” (it only happened once, in the nineties, and I still feel ashamed about it; the guy is an influential EP member now).
Without any question, the internet – through social media, blogs and op-eds from sharp columnists – facilitated this radicalization. Nowadays, you can just read any newspaper of your preference online, which was not the case until the mid-90s. In my case, no doubt people like George Monbiot & Guardian coverage in general have radicalized me in recent years, as well as reading blogs, for example on Social Europe journal. So called ‘technocratic’ solutions, ostensibly aiming at “saving the euro” are now seen for what they are: as structural violence against ordinary people and a thinly veiled attempt to change the post-world war social contract in countries without much democratic participation.
Over the last five years, I’ve also had my fair share of global health readings, which no doubt also played a key role in this process of radicalization. Reading Richard Horton every week, and papers from people like Ronald Labonté, Ted Schrecker, Gorik Ooms and many others, … has its implications. One way or another, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that most of the People’s Health Movement’s analysis of the injustice in the world and its determinants is correct, even if their solutions suffer from the problem that haunts most progressives: how on earth do you imagine a totally different world, even if it’s urgent to get to one?
It’s undeniable that many progressive people feel quite pessimistic about the future of the world, not because they think the world doesn’t have the tools to change course, but because they think it won’t happen. Because of the way people are and because of the powerful vested (oil, gas, Big Food, Big Tobacco & Big Pharma…) interests who will try their utmost to prevent this (urgent) paradigm shift from happening. Yesterday was another good day at the office for them: Big Oil will no doubt jump at the news reported in the Economist on lower climate sensitivity, if confirmed.
True, many progressive people, including most global health people, do acknowledge that the world has improved in recent decades – Hans Rosling & Charles Kenny definitely have a point. We just doubt whether this progress will be sustainable.
Increasing radicalism and pessimism make for an explosive cocktail, even more so because also the people on the other side of the spectrum (formerly centre-right people) are going through a similar process. The result tends to be more polarization and gridlock. Not exactly what we need now.
What angers me the most, is that most people, even people in top positions, still continue their work like before, pretending we still have plenty of time. We don’t. Most of them in fact do know better, but it’s very human to crave stability, both at a personal and political level. But that doesn’t mean we should behave like ostriches.
Having said that, I do know what happened to Jesus in the end. I have no similar ambitions.
Happy Easter anyway.